Who Are the Homeless, and Can City Council Get Rid of Them?

Doesn't everyone already know "homeless" is a synonym for "derelict" -- men who don't hold jobs because it's easier to bum cigarettes and panhandle for beer money? Statistical analyses seldom conta

Nov 29, 2001 at 2:06 pm

Doesn't everyone already know "homeless" is a synonym for "derelict" — men who don't hold jobs because it's easier to bum cigarettes and panhandle for beer money?

Statistical analyses seldom contain surprises, but "Homeless in Cincinnati," a report issued by the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless (GCCH), has more than a few. The report shows homeless people look a lot like the rest of us.

First, most homeless people in Cincinnati aren't men. The study found 32 percent of the homeless are women and 26 percent are children. Second, most homeless men hold jobs.

"Alarmingly, the study found that almost 60 percent of men and 45 percent of women who are homeless are employed either full- or part-time," the report says. "Although these men and women are working, they do not earn enough to allow them to secure permanent housing for themselves and their families."

In case anyone finds that hard to believe, the report does the math for us. A person working 40 hours a week at the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour earns $10,712 a year — not even enough to pass the federal poverty threshold for a two-person family, which is annual income of $11,610.

Perhaps one of the most pernicious myths about homelessness is that it's largely disappeared since the 1980s, when the issue entered popular awareness. In fact, more people are homeless now than in 1986, the date of the first comprehensive study of local homelessness.

"Homeless in Cincinnati" counted 25,488 people without permanent housing in 2000, more than double the 1986 estimate of 9,526 to 11,454.

One must be careful with such numbers, as acknowledged by the authors of the study, Applied Information Resources.

"The reader is warned that these numbers are not in any way precise," the report says. "However they do reflect the trends which have occurred."

But the hazard is clearly twofold: The risk of undercounting the homeless is as great as the possibility of over-counting it. The 2000 U.S. Census, for example, counted exactly two individuals living on the streets in Cincinnati.

Susan Knight of GCCH and Donald Whitehead of the National Coalition for the Homeless, decided to have a look on their own.

"On a Sunday evening, they made their way to more than half a dozen encampments located on hillsides, beneath interstate bridges and along the river's edge," the report says.

Instead of finding two people on the streets, Knight and Whitehead found 121. But for the difficulty of reaching some encampments, the pair might have found more, according to GCCH Executive Director Alicia Beck.

"By its very nature, homelessness is hidden, even from housing advocates," Beck says. "We can't count all of the homeless people out there, but we do a better job than the census people."

The causes for homelessness ascribed by stereotypes exist in numbers far below what one might expect. The study found 19.7 percent of Cincinnati's homeless are alcoholic, compared to 7.7 percent for the nation as a whole. Drug addiction afflicts 22.3 percent of the homeless, compared to 1.7 percent for the nation.

What's surprising is not that the homeless have rates of substance abuse higher than people with stable homes. What's surprising is the broad range of other causes of homelessness.

Surveys used to compile "Homeless in Cincinnati" show people were homeless because of divorce or separation, domestic violence, child abuse, medical expenses, widowhood, release from jail, release from hospitals and treatment centers, loss of utilities, fire, mental illness and more than a dozen other factors cited.

GCCH is one of 12 regional agencies in the country whose mission includes organizing to protect homeless people's civil rights. In that area, Cincinnati is better than some large cities, where panhandling and loitering laws criminalize homelessness.

Cincinnati's problem is one of housing availability, Beck says.

"The environment for low-income housing in Cincinnati is not friendly," she says. "People have a lot of wrong ideas about low-income housing, a lot of stereotypes, and that breeds fear."

With city council opposing new low-income housing, will Cincinnati become known as the city that not only shuts out gays and lesbians but poor people, too?